Trust me, I’m Lying and the problem with internet-based journalism

Ryan Holiday’s book (before he shifted genre and started writing about stoicism), “Trust me, I’m Lying” was an eye opener on the incentive and inner working of the online media. The book covers several topics, which include how to make something goes viral by manufacturing outrage, why the media prioritizes speed over accuracy, and how mass media changes over time.

To simplify the discussion, we will refer all online media as “blogs”. Now, in this hyper-connected world, what would be the main goal of blogs? That would be to win as much attention as possible from the readers, resulting in pageviews which would then translate to ad revenue. Therefore, the main incentive for blogs is what would generate as much pageview as possible, instead of producing high-quality journalism. This situation is comparable to the era of yellow journalism, where printed news aim to achieve profit by selling as many prints as possible through outrageous, unverified, and low quality news.

One of the problem with blogs is that there is a constant pressure to publish articles continuously. A 24/7 news channel will need to find newsworthy items in order to fill their broadcast slot. For comparison, blogs, on top of running 24/7, need to be the first one to report a newsworthy event in order to get those sweet, sweet traffic. This pushes bloggers to post multiple articles per day in order to ensure profitability. As expected, this will result in reduced article quality, and the possibility for outsiders to exploit the need of bloggers for articles. Ryan Holiday demonstrated this by fabricating news item and sending it to smaller blogs who happily took the bait and published the article. In a sequence of events dubbed as ‘trading up the chain’, where bigger and bigger blogs pick up the news, the fabricated news eventually reached audiences on the national level.

At this point, the responsibility to verify the truth in a news article falls not on the blogs, but on the readers. Blogs try to legitimize their news and avoid responsibilities using vague wording, for example: ‘we received an anonymous tip’, ‘unverified sources said that’, etc. Or they might just cite a piece of news article from another blog (which somehow function like academic citations) so that if it turns out to be wrong they can just point fingers at other blogs. It becomes more and more difficult for the readers to figure out whether what they are reading is the truth or not. Can the readers be trusted? NPR conducted an ingenious April’s Fool prank in 2014 by publishing an article titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” Opening the link will open the following web page:

And as expected, the article was shared all over the place with people either agreeing with or against the headline in the comment section. At this point, many readers can’t even go past the headline of the article.

If a news piece is not talked or spread online, then it is as good as dead. Publishing a very informative news article where people simply read it, nods in agreement, and close the article doesn’t generate much revenue. Which is why we see news article with clickbait-y title, garbage content capitalizing on recent events, or polarizing contents.

People love to be outraged, and nowadays this can be easily achieved in Indonesia. Just publish an article where either the conservatives/progressives do some petty thing that would make the other side upset, and the article will go viral. A small bakery in Jakarta refuses to write “happy birthday” on their cake because of their beliefs? Well, this is hardly an important news to report. To each their own, and that’s a lost revenue on their part. But of course, the news go viral because for the progressives, it’s those intolerant crazy Islamist conservatives trying to convert the country into Indonistan one step at a time. For the conservatists, the article goes viral because this is a bakery that is trying to stand up to the evil liberal values coming from the west, aiming to eradicate our noble values and turn our children gay. Meh.

This also results in blogs twisting news headlines or butchering news piece out of context to fit certain narratives. This is particularly visible for news related to Jakarta whenever there are issues related to social unrests or floods.

Under the kind of business model where the news company revenue is determined by the amount of traffic that they can attract, publishing a high quality news piece with the highest accuracy becomes too costly. It takes too long to get all the facts right and conduct a proper investigation into certain issues. In fact, it might be more profitable to publish the wrong information first.

Here’s an example:

  1. Blog publishes a news piece with some errors in the infomation. Readers click on the article. This is traffic 1.

As you can see, blogs being wrong and publishing couple more articles to comment on how the blogs are wrong results in more traffic, and eventually more revenue.

Next is the problem with iterative journalism. Iterative journalism is defined as the process when a piece of news is immediately published before all of the facts are out. As new information is available, the new facts get incorporated into the main body of the news piece. One form of iterative journalism that we are all familiar with would be Wikipedia, where certain article keeps getting updated. Iterative journalism exists because in the world of blogging, becoming the first media outlet to publish hot news is extremely important for all those traffic. The problem? It is not rare that readers only see a snapshot of a news article at certain point in time. Once more facts come out and the article is updated, not many people would bother to read the updated version. Thus, people are left with incomplete facts that they obtained before the article reaches its ‘complete’ form.

So, is there anything that can be done to address this problem? It’s quite tricky, and as long as the revenue model is based on how much traffic a blog can obtain at any given time, then it’s hard. Some blogs, such as WaPo shifted to a subscription model, and surprisingly this actually works well for them revenue-wise, and it helps them maintain high-quality contents. But as for the rest, not much. After reading Ryan Holiday’s book, I noticed that I became more skeptical when reading news headlines, and at least skim through the news piece first before either sharing or commenting on it. I guess it’s the price to pay for the flood of information in our age.

PhD student. Interested in technology, popular science, and weeb stuffs.